South Carolina Democrats, working to turn out a show of force for President Joe Biden in their party’s primary Saturday, would like to remind their voters that Nikki Haley is not the moderate Republican that some may believe her to be.
In recent weeks, party leaders have made Haley a particular focus of their events across the state, calling her the “mother of the MAGA movement” and regaling attendees with lists of the ultraconservative policies she championed in her two terms as governor.
For any Democrat thinking about skipping Saturday’s primary and participating instead in the Republican contest three weeks later, the party’s message is very clear: Don’t.
“I had to sue her to get married,” Colleen Condon, who is gay and the South Carolina Democrats’ first nonbinary vice chair, told fellow party members at the party’s First in the Nation dinner Saturday. “Do not let your friends go vote in that primary. Please.”
Haley has shown strength with Democrats and independents in the first two nominating contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire. She narrowed the field to a one-on-one race against former President Donald Trump after other GOP rivals dropped, having failed to win over a base still loyal to him.
Effectively the last candidate standing between Trump and the nomination, she faces long odds in her home state, where the Republican electorate is even friendlier to her opponent. To achieve her goal of doing better than her 43% mark in New Hampshire, she most likely must expand her coalition or cobble together a new one.
The warning by Democrats is the latest sign of how the parties’ divergent primary election dates have scrambled politics in the key early voting state. South Carolina’s open primary system allows voters of any party to participate in either of the two primary elections. Democrats established their primary date in December 2022 while Republicans, seeking to focus the nation’s attention on their contest after the Nevada caucuses and primary in early February, set their primary date for later in the month.
There’s no indication that significant numbers of Democrats have so far been swayed to Haley’s camp. Those thinking of backing Haley on Feb. 24 say they feel compelled at least to consider it because their own primary is so uncompetitive. (Biden is running against Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., and Marianne Williamson, a self-help author, two candidates who have little presence in the state.) Some said they felt that voting for Haley could help narrow what polls show is a yawning gap in the race between her and Trump.
Bill Samuels, a 73-year-old retiree in Beaufort, said he and his wife were among the Democratic voters thinking about voting for Haley in the Republican primary as registered independents.
“I mean, who’s Biden running against?,” Samuels asked as he waited to hear from Democrats in the small parlor of Singleton’s Barbershop in Beaufort.
Jon Coffey, a Democratic voter seated next to him, said he, too, considered crossing into the opposing party’s election. “That’s a good strategy,” he said.
But later, he voiced qualms about an effort to elevate Haley. “You’ve got to be careful when you start playing with fire in a primary,” Coffey said. “It could backfire.”
A spokesperson for Haley, Olivia Perez-Cubas, said, “Nothing would make the Dems happier than Donald Trump being the Republican nominee.”
Pointing to national polls that suggest Haley could beat Biden in a general election by a larger margin than Trump, Perez-Cubas said of the former president that “they know Biden can beat him.”
Republicans, for their part, have endorsed changing election rules to partisan primary elections that would allow voters to cast ballots only in the primary for the party they are registered with. Drew McKissick, chair of the South Carolina Republican Party, called the state’s open primary system “the worst of all worlds.”
“We believe the most important thing that a party can do is actually nominate a candidate for office and get them elected,” he said. “So when we go do that most important thing we do, we should have that limited to people who actually support our party.”
Haley’s campaign has sought to convey that message to voters eager for an alternative to a general election rematch between Trump and Biden — but rather than overt appeals to Democratic voters seeking a moderate, her allies have underlined her reputation as a staunch conservative.
South Carolina Democratic leaders have sought to paint Haley as a politician whose national ambitions led her to push for some of the most conservative policies in state history, pointing specifically to her signing a 20-week abortion ban while governor in 2016 and refusing to expand Medicaid.
“I think standing next to Trump, anybody can look normal. And for me, it’s important for me to remind Democrats in South Carolina who Nikki Haley is,” Christale Spain, chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said in an interview.
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